College and high school student demonstrators waved signs both celebrating and decrying JRTOC rifle ranges on school campuses. Demonstrators lined the hallways and grassy area of the Eugene Brucker Education Center during the contentious San Diego Unified School District Board of Education meeting.
Board members voted 3-2 to remove air pellet guns from campus in light of recent off-campus shootings involving high school students.
Board president Shelia Jackson and board member Katherine Nakamura voted to keep the JROTC marksmanship program open. Board members John de Beck, John Lee Evans and Richard Barrera voted to close the firing ranges, effectively ending the marksmanship portion of the JROTC program.
At the meeting, Rich Jahnkow, a coordinator for the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, said using air rifles on campus sends the wrong message to students.
“[Students and parents] felt it was inconsistent with the philosophy of the district to try to encourage students to think about not using violence to solve problems,” Jahnkow said. “So they felt that these [ranges] did not belong.”
Former Mission Bay High School student Zulema Torres, 33, protested against the marksmanship training, along with several students and parents from the Education Not Arms Coalition. The coalition represents Latino and education groups, including the Association of Raza Educators and local high school chapters of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), a student political group.
“Many parents send their children to school … so they could get an education, not so they can learn to shoot weapons,” Torres said.
Representatives of Education Not Arms Coalition said at the meeting that JROTC acts as a military recruiting tool in high schools. They said students were often encouraged to join the JROTC at schools throughout the district.
Mission Bay High principal Cheryl Seelos said students are not “tracked” into the Mission Bay program and that the school offers the course as an elective requiring parents’ permission.
California College Republicans representative Matthew Donnellan, 21, rallied for the JROTC program. He said that those who oppose the program are misinformed.
“The JROTC shapes students to be leaders. It’s safe and supervised,” Donnellan said.
During the meeting, board members praised the students’ peaceful demonstration that included about 100 Lincoln High School students, community organizers and parents.
Lt. Col. Brian Josten, Mission Bay High’s JROTC instructor, said his students were disappointed with the board’s decision.
“What did the demonstrators gain?” Josten asked. “I sure know what we’ve lost, but what was gained?”
Josten pointed out that no accidents had been reported in the JROTC’s 80-year history in San Diego schools. Marksmanship training shows an impeccable safety record, according to Josten.
The Mission Bay High principal said a lot of hard work and requests from students brought the marksmanship program to Mission Bay High in the fall of 2007.
“It’s a collegiate sport and has nothing to do with killing people on the street,” Seelos said. “We’re going to fight this.”
Controversy has surrounded the program since its inception, as critics decry the potential conflicts with the district’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding weapons on campus.
The air rifles use .177 caliber pellets that are slightly bigger than the more common BB used in most air pistols, according to JROTC officials.
Point Loma High School principal Barbara Samilson said her school was caught off guard by the board’s vote on the marksmanship training.
“We were definitely taken by surprise,” Samilson wrote in an e-mail. “[JROTC marksmanship] teaches self-discipline, the value of hard work and practice and the value of working as team.”
Mission Bay set aside an estimated $65,000 to help pay for staffing for the entire JROTC program. The Marine Corps pays for the rest of the marksmanship program, including the cost of rifles and safety equipment, according to Seelos.
Despite getting rid of the rifles and ranges, the rest of the program remains intact. At the Feb. 10 meeting, the Board of Education also voted to allow the JROTC program to fulfill physical education graduation requirements, along with the school’s marching band program.
About 81 students enrolled in the Mission Bay High School Marine Corps JROTC program last year. The entire district had an estimated 2,000 cadets last year.
San Diego High School was the first school to offer the program in 1919. Mission Bay High had an Army JROTC before officials moved the program to Madison High in 1962.